A Flowering Tree

A Flowering Tree – An opera in two acts to a libretto by John Adams and Peter Sellars, adapted from texts by Attipat Kirishnaswami Ramanujan [UK Premiere; Staged concert performance]

Storyteller – Eric Owens
Kumudha – Jessica Rivera
The Prince – Russell Thomas

Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanto & Astri Kusuma Wardani – Dancers and Choreography

Schola Cantorum de Venezuela
London Symphony Orchestra
John Adams

Peter Sellars – Director
James F Ingalls – Lighting
Mark Grey – Sound design

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 10 August, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This performance of John Adams’s opera “The Flowering Tree” was its UK premiere. The work received its first performances in November 2006 in Vienna.

Composer John Adams and co-librettist/director Peter Sellars are at pains to suggest links with Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” (The Magic Flute), by highlighting that the story of this new work is also about magical transformation, spiritual enlightenment and redemption. The narrative, which derives from a Southern Indian folk-tale of two millennia ago, concerns a poor but beautiful girl called Kumudha who is observed by a young Prince transforming into a flowering tree. This she does with the aid of her sister who then collects all the flowers, so that once the transformation has been reversed they can both sell the flowers in the market to support their family. The Prince marries the girl and after a few nights together she is persuaded to transform for him as well. This gift remains the bond between them.

The Prince’s jealous sister observes this and, with her friends, persuades the innocent girl to transform for her. They attack and mutilate the tree thereby preventing the return to form and leaving Kumudha in a limb-less semi-human state. She becomes a singing freak-object in a minstrel show. The Prince cannot survive without her and retreats into himself and takes to the streets as a beggar.

After some years he happens to the court of his sister, now a queen, and she recognises the harm she has done him. She also realises that the singing half-tree person who has attracted local attention in the markets is none other than her semi-transformed sister-in-law. In remorse, she brings her to the palace, cleans her and re-unites the couple. As the Prince recognises the voice of his ‘other half’ he comes back to life, effects her re-transformation and allows them to grow together again.

One can see why the tale was attractive from a musico-dramatic point of view and that it has potential charm – even if it might not be the easiest of plots to realise scenically. Indeed, Adams does produce much admirable music as well, bringing out the exotic colourings of the setting within his score, which is touched with prominent contributions from harps, celesta, recorders, and tubular bells embedded within the orchestral texture. At moments the music seemed interestingly close to Bartók’s. However, Adams’s pulsating and rhythmic compositional style provided the anchor to his music, as ever, and his control of mood through different tempos is as assured as one has come to expect. More than in some of his other operatic output the score also has a great deal of descriptive music, and much of the drama is portrayed through the orchestra, and occasionally through the mouth of the chorus, here the excellent and colourfully attired Schola Cantorum de Venezuela. Sometimes these voices behave as an operatic chorus, sometimes as an individual (the King), and sometimes as a provider of evocative orchestral effect. The singers’ music is complex and interesting, particularly the wordless depiction of Kumudha’s original flowering, save for the rather overlong minstrel episode.

But is this really an opera? The use of a narrator might be an effective device for setting the scene, but in this libretto the Storyteller seems to recount and describe all the parts of the drama that you would wish to see performed by the protagonists. One example stuck out – the prince is supposed to recognise his bride from her singing voice, and yet she did not actually sing in his presence until they were re-united. This limited vocal contribution therefore hampered the performers in the named roles creating much character in their portrayals. The librettists also seemed to be indecisive about the status of the narrator as he occasionally played other characters, or collections of characters, and the text switches from first- to third-person rather irritatingly. “A Flowering Tree” seems more of an oratorio / dramatic cantata.

This deficiency in structure affected the staging, as Peter Sellars seemed unprepared to let the music and the beautiful, mellow-voiced and affecting singing of Eric Owens to speak for itself. The production, even as a semi-staging (where distracting production tics are normally reduced), resorted to constantly mirroring the narrator’s words and the actions of the protagonists by use of dancers and stylised choreography. At moments, as when the dancers portrayed characters like the sister, this worked, but at other times when they just doubled what the principals were also doing it distracted. It was, in the worst sense, all rather predictable. Sellars seems as a director to be so set in his ways that his productions are in danger of becoming pretentious cliché. One sometimes feels he does Adams’s theatre-pieces a disservice – however much he helps fuel their creative collaborations.

These quibbles apart there was much to enjoy, particularly from the musical quarters. The London Symphony Orchestra players, not all the usual recognisable players, were on fine form and very responsive to the composer-conductor’s baton. The celesta, horns, contrabassoon and recorders deserve a mention for their contributions. Russell Thomas as the prince displayed a full and lusty tenor in his few contributions and Jessica Rivera a soprano with a very rich lower register and a rather less interesting top to the voice. Her lamenting song is very effective in its restraint and like Thomas and Owens she has excellent diction. The performance was well attended and received a rousing reception.

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